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Family trauma is trauma that is passed down through either behavior or genetics from one generation to the next. It is sometimes called generational trauma. Generational trauma occurs when a parent or caretaker has unhealed trauma of their own. According to PsychCentral’s article “How Intergenerational Trauma Impacts Families,” this places individuals at higher risk for mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression, and can lead to drug or alcohol addiction. 

Generational trauma is becoming more prevalent, especially in younger generations. This is leading to more individuals seeking drugs and alcohol as a way of coping instead of treatment and support. Let’s look at how this happens.

Trauma Can Be Learned

Trauma informs behavior. When someone has a traumatizing experience, it is stored in the body and the brain. When similar incidents to the trauma occur (or are perceived to occur), the brain ignites the body’s fight-or-flight response. This can include racing heart, palpitations, sweaty palms, and suddenly high or low energy. 

When trauma is unresolved, this response can become a pattern, effectively overwriting other patterns stored as neural pathways in the brain. The result is maladaptive behaviors and responses to threats and danger, sometimes manifesting as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders. This is where unhealed trauma can become family trauma: it informs a parent’s behavior, causing the parent to model trauma responses as behavior to their child. 

Trauma can also be passed down vicariously. An example of this occurring is when a parent shares what happened to them or what they are afraid of happening, creating the opportunity for their child to establish their own trauma response to that knowledge. As with trauma modeled through behavior, this trauma can then be passed on to the family’s next generation through learned behaviors, creating a cycle of learned trauma that can last generations.

Trauma Can Be Inherited

Trauma can create change in more than behavior; it can change the brain and the body at the chemical level. One way trauma informs the body is by turning on or off specific genes that are passed along from parent to child. According to Molecular Diversity Preservation International, “[T]rauma exposure to be passed to offspring transgenerationally via the epigenetic inheritance mechanism of DNA methylation alterations and has the capacity to change the expression of genes and the metabolome.” 

How Generational Trauma Relates to Addiction

Any trauma creates stress which requires coping mechanisms. Trauma symptoms can manifest as negative thoughts or unpleasant memories. Trauma responses can also include heightened breathing and perspiration. As a result of trauma and its symptoms, many people who experience family trauma turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. 

Drugs and alcohol create an escape from dealing with the unpleasant effects of trauma, but the break is only short-lived. When the symptoms of trauma return, individuals self-medicate again. This cycle creates drug and alcohol dependence and addiction. 

How to Heal From Family Trauma

Family trauma can be treated with the same methods other traumas are treated with and begin with your commitment to seek care. Breaking the cycle will require you to assess your surroundings to determine what risk factors for continued drug or alcohol use are at play. Part of recovery is creating the environment you need to succeed. For some, this will mean creating meaningful boundaries with the family members who passed on the trauma in the first place. 

During this time, you may need to cultivate a new community. Peer groups can be found online and in person through groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and more. Sober living facilities like those offered at West Coast Recovery Centers also offer group settings in which you can find like-minded individuals and mental health professionals who will support you on your recovery path. 

Finding Treatment for Addiction and Trauma

If you choose to seek treatment at any facility, remember that you should feel safe in your treatment choices. The facility you choose should be one free of discrimination and which offers care for your general and specific needs. When selecting a facility, check to be sure they offer the following:

Individual Treatment

Does the facility prioritize your individual health and safety? Do they allow you a preliminary interview to learn whether or not their mission aligns with your healing?

Treatment Options

Does the facility offer multiple therapeutic modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or music therapy? Will they ensure your treatment plan is individualized to meet your specific needs?

Trauma-Informed Treatment

Trauma-informed treatment ensures that you are treated with dignity and respect to prevent re-traumatizing you as you seek care. Trauma-informed care follows five tenets:

  1. Safety
  2. Choice
  3. Trustworthiness
  4. Collaboration
  5. Empowerment

Safety

Ask yourself if the treatment facility feels safe to you. This is a time when you will be at your most vulnerable, undergoing a transformation to better health. An addiction treatment facility should ensure your safety as you embark on your path of healing.

It is possible for you to have learned or inherited trauma. When trauma is passed on from generation to generation either through learned behavior or genetics, it is called family trauma or generational trauma. Like other trauma, family trauma can contribute to alcohol and drug addiction. However, you can break the cycle and prevent the passage of your learned or inherited trauma to future generations by seeking professional mental health and addiction treatment through a facility like West Coast Recovery Centers. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we offer a wide range of healing techniques and therapeutic modalities to assist in the healing of the trauma that informs alcohol or drug addiction. If you or a loved one has developed an addiction that may be the result of family trauma, call us today at (760) 492-6509 to learn how we can help you heal.